A Raw Deal for Migrant Workers

International Migrants' Day is a good occasion to think about the migrant workers living in our midst and how we treat them.

Sigal Rosen
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Sigal Rosen

International Migrants' Day, observed on December 18, was originally intended to give host countries an opportunity to thank migrant workers for the services they provide. In reality, the day is observed mainly by human rights' organizations and immigrant organizations around the world.

In Israel the state authorities ignore International Migrants' Day. Then again, they also ignore the migrants. Here, there are no migrant workers, only "foreign workers." Workers come here only to work. They are foreigners. Aliens. Not our own. They won't be staying. The word "migrant" connotes permanence; it sounds almost like "immigrant," heaven forbid. All over the world the term "migrant workers" prevails, but Israel stubbornly clings to "foreign workers" - just so long as they don't settle here, as migrants do.

In the Western world, there are two major approaches to labor migration: Some countries encourage migrants from certain sectors of the population to come and settle in their territory, while other countries try to protect their own cultural identity by keeping migrant workers out. Israel, as far as I know, is the only country in the world that does both. Only Israel invites tens of thousands of migrant workers each year, and at the same time declares it wishes to reduce their number, thus justifying its own cruel policy of deportation.

However, the fact that Israel does not wish for migrant workers to settle permanently does not mean that they must be subjected to abuse while they are here. Eight months ago, following a four-year-long petitioning of the High Court of Justice by human rights' organizations, it ruled that the prevalent arrangement binding migrant workers to their employers infringed on the workers' basic rights and therefore had to be repealed.

The justices expressed open distaste for the existing arrangement: "There is no avoiding the conclusion that the foreign worker has become the employer's vassal; that the agreement binding workers to their employers has created a modern version of pseudo-slavery. In the agreement binding workers to employers, which the state itself has established and enforced, the state has pierced the ears of the foreign workers on the employers' doorposts, and shackled the workers' hands and feet to the employers who 'imported' them.... Our faces should we covered with shame if we view all this and remain silent" (Justice Mishael Cheshin).

So wrote the justice but decided, apparently, to remain silent and endure the shame covering his face: the High Court of Justice gave the state an extension of a whole six months to establish an alternate employment arrangement that will not bind migrant workers to their employers. Eight months have passed. In practice, nothing has changed.

For all the harsh words of the justices, business goes on as usual, and migrant workers who paid a fortune for the right to be legally employed in the Holy Land continue to lose their legal status because of the binding arrangement and are deported.

International Migrants' Day is a good occasion to think about the migrant workers living in our midst and how we treat them. Let us hope that this day will someday cease to be an event aimed at creating basic human rights for migrant workers, and become a day that serves its original purpose, a day on which we express thanks to the workers who shoulder the burdens we wish to avoid: caring for our elderly parents, tilling our land, and building and cleaning our homes.

Sigal Rosen is public policy coordinator for Moked -the Hotline for Migrant Workers.



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